Memorial Day, as Americans have come to know it, began in the years immediately following the Civil War. But until World War II, most people knew it as “Decoration Day.” It was a day to decorate with flowers and flags the graves of fallen soldiers and remember those who had given, as Lincoln beautifully said, “the last full measure of devotion” to defend their nation. It was a day to remember what the honored dead had died to defend.
A century and a half has passed since Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, effectively ending a national nightmare that filled over 625,000 American graves with dead soldiers. Since then, other international nightmares have ravaged the world and put more than 650,000 additional Americans into war graves in Europe, North Africa, the Pacific Rim, Asia, and the Middle East.
Remembering Is for the Future
Memorial Day is an important national moment. It is a day to do more than barbeque. It is right and wise to remember the great price some have paid to preserve the historically unprecedented civil and religious freedoms we Americans have the luxury to take largely for granted.
But the importance of Memorial Day is more for our future than it is for our past. It is crucial that we remember the nightmares and why they happened. We forget them at our own peril. The future of the United States depends in large amount on how well we collectively remember and cherish what liberty really is and the terror of tyranny. There is a high cost to forgetting. In the words of George Santayana’s famous aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
A Memorial People
Christians, of all people, understand the crucial importance of remembering. Christians are “memorial people” because the whole of our faith depends upon remembering. Those who persevere into the glorious future are those who remember the gracious past.
That’s why God has surrounded us with memorials. The entire Bible itself is a memorial. We meditate on it daily to remember. The Sabbath was a memorial to Israel’s freedom from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 5:15), and the church switched it to Sundays as a memorial to Christ’s resurrection and our freedom from sin. Israel’s great gathering feast days were memorials (Exodus 13:3). And now each time a local church gathers, each Lord’s Supper celebration (1 Corinthians 11:24–26), each baptism, each Christmas celebration, and each Easter celebration is a memorial.
Remembering God’s past grace is necessary to fuel our faith in God’s future grace for us.† This makes the memory one of God’s most profound, mysterious, and merciful gifts granted to us. God designed it to be a means of preserving (persevering) grace for his people. We neglect it at our own peril.
The future of the church, globally and locally, and of each Christian depends largely on how well we remember the gospel of Jesus, all his precious and very great promises, and the successes and failures of church history. Scripture warns us that if we fail to remember, we will be condemned to submit again to sin’s and hell’s enslavement (Hebrews 6:4–8). Such warnings are graces to help us remember.
So as we commemorate Memorial Day as Americans, let us do it with profound gratitude for the extraordinary common grace given to us when men and women laid their lives down for the sake of America’s survival. And let us remember the past evils that we may not repeat them in the future.
And as Christians, let us make every day, as long as it is called today, a memorial day (Hebrews 3:13). Let us “take care lest [we] forget the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:12).
Let us “remember Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:8).
† The most worshipful meditation on the human memory I’ve ever read is in Augustine’s Confessions, Book Ten, sections Vlll–XXV.